Discover New Mexico’s Sunspot Scenic Byway
If you are considering a future road trip, few out-of-the-way paths could rival the beauty and awe of the Sunspot Scenic Byway. The 15-mile scenic drive begins by traveling south through the Lincoln National Forest just outside the Southern New Mexico town of Cloudcroft.
This small mountain-top town is a well-known tourist destination supported by many unique shops, cafes, and galleries. Its name is an old English word meaning “covered in clouds”. The reference may have to do more with the town’s elevation, 9000 ft. at its highest point, than the weather. The skies are mostly clear throughout the year. Comfortable in the summer and not too cold in the winter.
It is also home to a historic lodge aptly named, The Lodge. Constructed in 1899 by the Alamogordo and Sacramento Mountain Railway, it has a rich and cultured past. Clark Gable was one of the many notable guests from a gone-by era. It is open to this day, retaining its original architecture, charm, and luxury accommodations.
Sunspot Solar System Model Signs
The Sunspot Scenic Byway was designated NM 6563, a salute to the region’s deep-rooted science and space history. The number references the scientific measurement of angstroms in a wavelength of light. Another tip of the hat on this route are the signs along the road named after planets. Each is precisely placed using a 1:250 million scale model to correspond to the distance between the planets and the Sun in our solar system. So, for example, the distance from downtown Cloudcroft to the visitors center in Sunspot represents the distance from the dwarf planet Pluto to our Sun.
As the road zigzags, twists and turns through the Sacramento Mountains, keep an eye on the numerous overlooks and lookouts granting spectacular canyon views stretching over the landscapes 5000 feet below.
A first point to reference is the Haynes Canyon Vista. Stop there and take a moment. You will be hushed by the natural beauty of the Little Burro Mountains, San Andres Peaks, and the forever-shifting dunes of White Sands National Monument.
Continuing along the front rim of the Sacramento Mountains, the road winds through stands of aspen trees and fir forests. You will pass many hiking trails and similar lookouts spanning most of South-Central New Mexico on your way to the route’s terminus, Sunspot, New Mexico.
Astronomers and space academics were drawn to the Sunspot area because of the low humidity, remote dark skies, and its low dust air quality, which provides optimal viewing for research.
Sacramento Peak Observatory
Post WWII, 1947, the United States government selected a site on Sacramento Peak to build a solar observatory to study how the Sun’s activities could cause radio blackouts. The Sun’s impact on radio transmissions was a discovery made during wartime that affected US armed forces’ communication capabilities. Many decades later, two observatories in Sunspot are still conducting science, observing the skies.
Sunspot Astronomy & Visitors Center
The Sunspot Astronomy Visitors Center is a great place to learn more about the history of Sunspot and the observatories. The Sunspot Solar Observatory Consortium, which the New Mexico State University leads in collaboration with The National Solar Observatory, operates the facility. You will see astounding views of the Tularosa Basin, a museum with exhibits, a gift shop, vending machine, and public restrooms. There is also The Dunn Solar Telescope observation room which provides access to what the solar telescope is actively viewing when operational at the Sunspot Solar Observatory. Contact the Sunspot Visitors Center while planning your trip, as schedules and events change throughout the year.
The Apache Point Observatory does its scientific viewing at night. It is not open to the public, but tourists are encouraged and welcome to explore the site grounds. You can get a walking tour brochure at the Sunspot Visitors Center.
Once your time in Sunspot NM is complete, and you are making your way down the mountain, there are many other great near-by attractions you could add to the list of “I-Wanna-See”. Such as the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo or the White Sands National Park.
At the end of this road trip, you will have experienced unique towns, wondrous landscapes, celestial skies, and one of New Mexico’s most memorable scenic byways.